Opinion Piece: “Cut a path, but don’t cut a tree”: Remembering the Late Sheikh Zayed
When I was charged with the honour of writing about the late Sheikh Zayed, my heart jumped with joy! After all, what could be easier than describing the works of a legend with an exhaustive list of accomplishments across various fields? May his soul rest in peace. I anticipated a torrent of words to flow, but when I put pen to paper, only then did I realise the monumental task that stood before me. Indeed, how could I have expected otherwise, when he is all that he is, and I am only my humble self?
He was the knight-in-shining-armour shouldering the concerns of his nation with a smile, and the caregiver who safeguarded the country’s wildlife, birds, trees, sands, seas, and deserts. In the ‘Year of Zayed’, his year of commemoration, we find ourselves at a loss of words to describe Zayed – the environmentalist that conquered the desert.
He was the protective father and leader who strove to preserve the nation’s riches across generations. With the rare experience of having spent his formative years surrounded by untainted nature, he was fuelled with by an inspired and deep commitment towards protecting the environment — and his wise words drew our guiding vision: “We cherish our environment because it is an integral part of our country, our history and our heritage. On land and in the sea, our forefathers lived and survived in this environment. They were able to do so only because they recognized the need to conserve it, to take from it only what they needed to live, and to preserve it for succeeding generations.”
It was he, may he rest in peace, who consistently put his words into solid actions that would empower our ancestors to overcome the harsh desert conditions and scarcity of resources — and help prevent future generations from enduring similarly challenging or even greater hardships. For when he said: “For us in the United Arab Emirates, environment protection is not a mere slogan, or words that lack context, it is in-fact an integral part of our history, heritage, and way of life. We have always been, and will remain committed to the principle of coexistence between human beings and nature,” he was not embellishing words. In fact, he excelled in his efforts to protect the environment and put his words into action. He was the first to dig water canals, and to declare natural reserves, all the while encouraging his people to guard their country’s exquisite nature. He said: “With God's will, we shall continue to work to protect our environment and our wildlife, as did our forefathers before us. It is a duty, and, if we fail, our children, rightly, will reproach us for squandering an essential part of their inheritance, and of our heritage.”
Yes, dear father of our nation, none other than us— the people of this nation— have been blessed with diverse natural environments; from deserts to seas and mangroves. Therefore, who — besides us— holds the responsibility to protect these jewels?
As noted by Graeme Wilson, in his book “Zayed: Man Who Built a Nation”, what distinguished the late Sheikh Zayed from others, who advocate for the environment, was his deep-seated belief to preserve it, as evidenced by succeeding generations of Emiratis who continue to recount his love for the environment and nature. One of his greatest stories came to be during his tour of Al Ain’s development projects, when he noticed one of the city’s oldest trees growing in the projected path of a new road under construction. After learning of the proposed plan to cut down the tree, the late Sheikh Zayed called on the project managers demanding that the tree be left in place, which eventually led to the road’s bisection and re-mergence. He always lived by the motto: “Cut a path, but don’t cut a tree,” and his efforts were not restricted to preserving existing flora, but also extended to breathing more life into the desert; planting thousands of square kilometres of trees and desert vegetation— ultimately resulting in a now countless number, in the estimated range of 100 to 150 million. He strongly believed that nature and greenery are as important to urban infrastructure as the development of new roads and buildings.
The late Sheikh Zayed did not seek recognition when he advocated for environmental protection, but since ‘actions speak louder than words’, his efforts attracted global attention and awards. He was the first president to receive the “Golden Panda” Award from WWF, the world’s leading conservation organisation, as a testament to his nature preservation efforts.
In 2005, the late Sheikh Zayed also received the ‘Champions of the Earth’ Award from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in recognition of his renowned regional and international achievements in agriculture, protection of endangered species, development of natural reserves and efforts to add greater vegetation to the desert.
We, at the Emirates Wildlife Society-WWF, are proud and committed to fulfilling the vision of our founding father; of preserving our natural heritage, and passing it on to future generations— in the same way we bequeath real estate and money. After all, what is the value of money in the absence of good health? And how will it ensure the happiness of our future generations if they are unable to find pure drinking water, or organisms to preserve the natural balance of the earth? As humans, we are part of an intertwined chain, in which each link is essential to completing the divine circle of life. As orchestrated by our Creator, we are all part of a unit that plays in harmony, to create the synchronous melody of life.